Lou Ferrigno may be the most famous bodybuilder never to win the Mr Olympia competition, he is however one of a very small number of bodybuilders to find success away from bodybuilding.
In fact Lou Ferrigno is probably more famous for his portrayal of The Incredible Hulk than he is for his many bodybuilding accomplishments.
Lou was born in Brooklyn New York on November 9th 1951. At the age of three he suffered from repeated ear infections and has been deaf in one ear ever since. This eventually affected his speech.
His father, Matty Ferrigno was a police lieutenant and their relationship was explored (some would say exploited) by the documentary “Pumping Iron”.
While it is clear that both father and son were close, it would be fair to say that they had a somewhat complicated relationship. Often arguing about how best to succeed.
Lou began bodybuilding at the age of 13, inspired by Steve Reeves (a famous actor and bodybuilder from the 50s and 60s). After leaving high school, Lou started to take bodybuilding very seriously.
Starting out in Bodybuilding
Lou won his first bodybuilding award in 1971, the Pro Mr America (teen), before winning the IFBB Mr America in 1973 at the age of 21 (the youngest winner in history).
He moved to Columbus, Ohio and trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He then won the IFBB Mr Universe, followed by the IFBB Mr International, and IFBB Mr Universe again in 1974.
It was in 1974 that he entered his first ever Mr Olympia. He came in second place to Arnold, his gym buddy from Columbus, Ohio.
While he was training for this, he was back in Brooklyn working as a sheet metal worker (which he had trained for at high school). He disliked the job though and quit after a fellow employee lost a hand in an industrial accident.
In 1975 he again attempted to win the Mr Olympia, in what is now the most famous period in the competition’s history. The lead up to the competition, and the competition itself was filmed for the documentary “Pumping Iron”.
When you watch it you can see the difference between Lou’s private training in a dark empty basement gym, and Arnold’s sunny and popular California based gym.
The two athletes were clearly in direct competition with each other, and the documentary played on this, racking up the tension between the two.
In truth, both lifters had a lot of respect for each other and helping each other out through training. Nevertheless, the two were in direct competition with Arnold coming out as the eventual winner (Serge Nubret of France coming second with Lou third).
After 1975 both Arnold and Lou retired from Bodybuilding.
Acting, and the Return to Bodybuilding
Ferrigno competed in 1977s World’s Strongest Man competition coming 4th out of 8 competitors.
He also won the part (beating out Arnold Schwarzenegger) of The Incredible Hulk. A role that he became famous for. He would stay in this role until the program ended in 1982.
He would reprise his role in future TV movies in the 80s and 90s.
In 1983 he would star in his first film “Hercules” for which he won the “Worst New Star”, and was nominated for “Worst Actor” at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
While his film career was enjoyable, he clearly missed bodybuilding and in 1992 he came out of retirement to compete in that year’s Mr Olympia.
He was at a much heavier weight than he was in the 1970s, but the competition had moved on by then, and he ended up coming 12th.
A year later he tried again, this time finishing in 10th position (Dorian Yates won both the 92 and 93 competitions).
In 1994 he qualified for the Olympic Masters and competed against Robby Robinson for the title. This competition was again featured in a documentary (called “Stand Tall”).
In the end Robby won, but Lou gained even more popularity in the bodybuilding world afterwards.
Lou Ferrigno’s Training Style
Lou followed a three days on, one day off training routine. He believed in 10-12 sets per body part as a maximum, and to train each muscle group twice per week.
He would pair Chest and Back on one day, biceps and triceps on another, and then shoulders and legs on the third day.
Notice how on one day he trains just biceps and triceps (two relatively small muscle groups) but on the other he was training shoulders and legs (larger muscle groups).
Obviously he placed a lot of emphasis on arms!
The exercises that he selected were usually compound (multiple muscles worked in one exercise) mixed in with some isolation. For example, his shoulder exercises would be Shoulder press 4 x 10, lateral raise 4 x 12, and bent over lateral raise 4 x 12 .
Legs would consist of squats, leg extensions, and leg curls.
When competing for Mr Universe and Mr Olympia in 1975 Lou says that his diet was low calorie and high carbohydrate , but that in 1992 he started eating smaller meals regularly as he believed it would increase his metabolism (it has been since proven that this is not the case).
The frustrating thing with Lou Ferrigno is wondering just how successful he could have been, if you listen to interviews he talks about the mistakes he made.
Not training with Arnold in California, not giving himself enough time to compete for 1975 (he had just 8 weeks). Peaking too early for the 1992 Mr Olympia. Retiring at 1975 before he had even peaked.
If he had not retired, and if he had had a couple of things go his way we could be talking about one of the most successful Bodybuilders of all time.
A guy who had as many titles as Arnold if not more. But as Lou himself would probably say, his acting career might never have taken off, and he would have been another in a long line of successful bodybuilders who are unknown to the general public.
Lou’s legacy would be best looked at as a fantastic bodybuilder who has put loads into the bodybuilding world, and who has had a successful acting career too.